(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)
There’s a certain irony in reading this Matthew passage on Ash Wednesday. There aren’t many times when Mainline Protestants can truthfully be accused of showy religious practices, and the one time a year when we do put on an outwardly visible mark, we first are admonished to beware of practicing our religion before others. But it is important to read the rest of the sentence—Jesus doesn’t say “don’t practice your faith where other people can see,” he says “don’t practice your religion to draw others’ attention” (Matthew 6:1, CEB). If the purpose of our faith practice is to make an impression on others, to garner attention for ourselves, then we do need to beware—there is no benefit in that practice. Jesus was neither the first nor the last to say so! Isaiah rails against showy religion too. He says to forget about the outward trappings that do nothing but bring glory to ourselves, and instead to look to practices that glorify God—feeding the hungry, correcting injustice, giving of ourselves.
Jesus said the same—notice he didn’t do away with the practice, only with the prestige and worldly benefits. Jesus says “when you give” and “when you fast” and “when you pray.” He assumes we will do these things, assumes we will practice our faith, assumes we will continue to seek a relationship with God, even if no one is watching and waiting to praise our piety.
We are entering a season when it’s tempting to either drag friends and family through our caffeine- and dessert-deprived wilderness along with us, or to ignore it because we’re somehow above the spiritual disciplines of Lent. Wherever along that spectrum we fall, these readings invite us to another way. Joel calls us to “tear your hearts, not your clothing” (v. 13, CEB)—to recognize that we have not lived as God’s covenant people; we have followed other ways, we have broken God’s heart. This is one of the things we can feel in that gritty ash cross, but if our only sign of that recognition is on the outside, we have still missed the point and the opportunity in the practice. “Return to me with all your heart.” Return—related to “repent,” the word of Lent. But to repent, to turn, to return, is a whole-hearted endeavor, though our hearts may be torn and broken. It requires all of us, it’s not something we can do halfway. Half-hearted faith, the faith of torn clothes and proudly worn ashes, easily becomes showy religion that reaps only immediate rewards. But the ashes of a torn heart makes room for a life changing relationship with the most merciful, compassionate, patient, forgiving Love—a Love that will give us new hearts and new lives, if only we will live in the new kingdom.